Scottish Labour must take its head out of the sand

Neil Findlay proposes a way forward for Scottish Labour on its constitutional crisis

Labour cannot ignore or wish away constitutional realities a second longer. Issues of democracy, accountability, independence, devolution and regional and national identity are – whether we like it or not- the issues that dominate the Scottish and increasingly, the British, political landscape. If we look at governance across Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their Parliament or Assembly, there is the Greater London Authority, metro mayors, county councils, district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts, London boroughs, town and parish councils, not to mention the Houses of Commons, the Lords and previously the European Parliament.

This myriad of different levels of government, each with different powers and responsibilities governed by politicians elected under different voting systems (save the Lords) is a dog’s breakfast. If we are going to see the regions of England gain the powers to develop their regional economies (retaining the necessary UK-wide fiscal redistribution), build their own public services to meet local needs and enhance and promote their distinct regional cultures and identities, then we need not just constitutional reform but also local government reform in England.

Whilst some regions have a natural and distinct geographical, political and/or cultural coherence, others are maybe less so. Yet what they do have in common is that in every corner of Britain, people are proud of the place they call home and have a desire to make life better for all their fellow citizens. But they need the tools to do so. Labour has talked a lot about federalism: the talking needs to end and we must see action with have a credible plan so that when in government it will, once and for all be delivered.

I am not arguing for another tier of local governance but a need to reform local government in England and the wider British state to give the nations and regions of it the powers needed with a major programme of democratic reform — no ifs, no buts. Democracy, devolution and subsidiarity should be the driving principles with powerful regional and national governments able to build strong, vibrant, regional and national sustainable communities within a democratised political system where each level of government has clear established and legally binding rights and responsibilities that cannot be taken away at anybody’s whim.

The basic principle on which this should be built is that all powers be devolved to the lowest possible level unless there is a logical and overwhelming reason not to do so. Let’s take two examples. First, drugs. Scotland has the worst rate of drugs death in Europe – therefore all policy headings related to drugs including the misuse of drugs act should be fully devolved to Scotland to address the crisis here. Why would we not do this? Scotland, Wales, Merseyside and every other English region should equally be able to develop policies to meet their local needs, pressures and circumstances. Second, borders. We live in a small island nation with a well-developed internal single trading market and free movement of people within our border. This should remain reserved at a UK level since it makes little sense to create barriers within such a small piece of land. We can, of course, have flexibility to meet national and regional needs but this would remain within an overall immigration policy.

These are just two examples but if we systematically work through all powers then we can see the natural level of government for those powers to rest. There will be debates and disagreement about where a minority of powers should lie.

I make these points to set out a longer-term objective for democratic reform of the British state but here in Scotland we cannot wait until the rest catch up. We need a positive, coherent, practical package of reforms that we can put to the people now – at present we are not even on the pitch, never mind in the game. On this issue Labour has been lazy, curmudgeonly and out of touch.

I have long argued that we need a third option on any future constitutional referendum – one that is not the status quo or independence. That option should be based on the maximum practical and beneficial devolution of powers to the most appropriate level – subsidiarity as it used to be called. This option isn’t a cop out. It is the most logical, practical and beneficial proposal for Scotland’ long term economic, social and political stability and well-being.

In addition to this, we should accept that once we know the outcome of Brexit and if there is a Scottish parliamentary majority for a referendum then there should be one. Indeed, if Labour has a credible, coherent plan to put to the people then we should positively support that referendum and participate in it arguing for this ‘Devo Max’ or ‘Home Rule’ – these are not titles I like but will work with for now – to be on the ballot paper as a third option.

Labour must play an active and positive role; we cannot be sour, passive bystanders. Further, I would argue that if that referendum delivers a result that is not the status quo then any new constitutional arrangement negotiated thereafter must be put back to the people of Scotland so they have the final say on accepting or rejecting that change. This is a positive and optimistic path for Labour to follow. It sees us as participants bringing something new and workable to table. Let’s end the stalemate and move on constructively with a real offer to the Scottish people.

Neil Findlay is a Lothians Labour List MSP